When you can't see your doormat for the mass of letters, all from mysterious strangers vying for your attention, you know it's that time of year again and we're not talking Valentine's. Your insurance renewal date is looming and it's time to start the chore of mulling over your options. Or is it?

According to Derek Gillpin of the Post Office and Store in Frizington, Cumbria, finding the best policy to suit your needs doesn't have to be a painful experience. "Looking around on the internet and phoning up about insurance is the biggest waste of time," he says. "I don't need to bother with that because I use a broker. I've been using one for seven years and I'd certainly recommend other retailers take advantage of their know-how. A broker knows your set-up and as long as you keep them up to date on your figures, they'll get you a good deal."

The basic role of a broker is to provide you with professional advice in order to help identify and manage risk. They then negotiate appropriate insurance protection tailored to your individual needs.

"A c-store can tell a broker about their business and then let them do the legwork," says the British Insurance Brokers Association (BIBA) spokesman Graeme Trudgill. "A broker will look at how long it takes to stock the store; where the premises is based; how long it would take to replace damaged equipment and so on. It's all about them understanding your business and finding the best deal for you."

A good broker will have expert knowledge of insurance and experience in the industry he or she is looking to insure, as well as knowledge of how to find the cheapest policies for their clients, states SME Insurance Services spokesman Stuart Knowles. "For example, with Convenience Store Insurance, the retailer is offered a dedicated contact centre where they can talk through everything on the phone with no forms to fill in. They will be able to assess your business and advise on the best policies available in each appropriate area, and ensure that when you take out a policy it gives you the best (and most relevant) cover available for the cost. All these services are backed by a broker who is a specialist provider to the convenience store trade."

He also claims that a broker will be able to drill down further, to look at any extras you might need. "They will advise you if any additional, more specialist, cover such as for mechanical breakdown or deterioration of stock is available."

Value for money

Okay, so brokers can save you time, but can they really get you the best price? "As a broker deals with many insurance companies on a regular basis, they will have a good feel for costs and will know when a quote is overpriced," claims Knowles. "Not only that, but because a broker will purchase a large number of policies over a period of time, they are often able to get bulk discounts from the insurers. This means that even with the cost of the broker's charges (which are sometimes covered by their commission from the insurer), buying insurance through a broker is normally cheaper."

So far, so good, but with all the comparison tools available these days, you might ask what's to stop you leaving out the middleman and doing the groundwork yourself.

"People look on the internet, where you can find out how much an insurer will cover you for, but you don't necessarily know whether the insurance is really suitable for you," explains Trudgill.

Retailer Derek Gillpin is well aware of the pitfalls you can come up against when insuring your shop. "I get bombarded with calls every year about insurance," he says. "Prices can fluctuate up to £400 between different packages, so you really need to analyse the policy content carefully."

But despite the difficulties involved in trying to find a policy that covers all the right areas, not all retailers feel that using a broker is the way forward. "I'm not convinced a broker can get a better deal than me," says Dave Chew, owner of Dave's Convenience Store in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. "I used to use a broker, but he couldn't get anywhere near the quotes I got myself."

However, BIBA claims that it's not just about cost, but about finding a policy that covers all your vulnerabilities. "It's not just about how much you're insured for, it's about covering your main exposure areas," states Trudgill. "Say, for example, your store stocks a lot of alcohol it's going to be higher risk and more expensive than a store that doesn't. In the same way, a store in a town may be more at risk from shoplifting than a rural shop."

SME agrees that using a broker is highly likely to increase your chances of getting the right coverage. "A good broker will be experienced with the fine details of insurance policies. They will be far better at looking through individual policy information and clauses to check for any unwanted or missing areas," says Trudgill.

Derek is satisfied that the insurance policy his broker has found for him is money well spent. "It's definitely a case of getting what you pay for," he says. "If you go direct to an insurer, then you might be offered a cheaper deal, but it's almost bound to be the case that you end up with a policy that doesn't meet your needs. I pay a bit extra so that I can sleep at night."